Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
Like birds on a wire, Democratic presidential wannabes are flapping their wings and leaving the perch at the same time. Or are they more akin to lemmings? North Carolina Senator John Edwards threw his fine head of hair into the ring last week by declaring the establishment of an exploratory campaign. As soon as he did, outgoing House minority leader Richard Gephardt--the Speaker who never was--announced his exploratory committee would pitch camp. That prompted aides and pals of Senator Tom Daschle, who lost his title as Senate Majority Leader this past election, to inform reporters their man was about to do the same. [UPDATE: On January 7, the Daschle crew spread the word that Daschle during the final countdown had decided to abort the misssion.] And one-time charlatan and current-day community activist Al Sharpton said on January 3 that, he, too, had an exploratory committee under construction.
This quartet joins Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and just-leaving Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, who each have opened their own exploratory campaign. (Funny thing about these exploratory committees--they almost always find what they set out to look for: a reason why their sponsor should formally declare himself a candidate for president.) Waiting in the wings--but probably not for long--is Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. Others Democrats who have been asked--or have asked to be asked--about their presidential desires include Delaware Senator Joe Biden, Florida Senator Bob Graham, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, former NATO commander and Iraq war skeptic Wesley Clark, Representative Dennis Kucinich, who heads the Progressive Caucus in the House, and one-time scandalized presidential candidate Gary Hart, who has enjoyed a post-9/11 resurgence as a terrorism egghead.
As soon as Al Gore yanked himself out of the race, the others lunged. They had strong motivation to move fast. The Democrats, thank to party chairman Terry McAuliffe, have frontloaded their primaries next year. There won't be much time for any one candidate to build momentum by winning here and there over the course of a couple months. The eventual nominee will likely be whoever is left standing after the initial round. Which means the early prepping is more crucial than ever. Gore's will-he-or-won't-he bit kept the race frozen. But the other contenders were eager to enlist consultants and fundraisers. The first pre-primary season involves competition for the party professionals, who themselves are usually anxious to sign up with a candidate early. (They then can start billing right away and, probably just as important, can maximize their influence with their new boss.) Next comes another pre-primary season--the money-chase, during which candidates are expected to prove their legitimacy by raising millions of dollars from friends and strangers. (Sharpton may get a bye in this round.)
Look at the stories that accompanied Edward's entry into the race (which was purposefully scheduled for the slow news week of New Year's). Most contained the obligatory paragraph (or more) about questions surrounding his fundraising ability. He has only campaigned once before--in 1998 for the Senate--and used millions of dollars from the personal fortune he amassed as a trial lawyer to pay for that expensive bid. Mr. Fresh Face may end up wowing the Democratic deep-pockets, but old-dogs Gephardt, Kerry, Daschle, and Lieberman each have extensive fund-grubbing experience, a natural base of contributors (Lieberman, for example, can call on the insurance industry of his home state, Jewish-Americans, and the corporate sponsors of the Democratic Leadership Council, which he once chaired), and a long list of potential donors. Edwards and Dean may have trouble keeping up in the ka-ching department, but, unlike the Republican primary contest of 2000 (in which major contenders dropped out, citing financing problems in the face of George W. Bush's mega-money machine), the Democratic nomination battle probably will offer voters several candidates who are, as the pros like to say, "competitive."
So with the hares out on the track, it's time for an early run-down of the already-announced or soon-to-be--in no special order.
Lieberman. Would he join the current race had Gore in 2000 not selected him, over Kerry and Edwards, as his soon-to-be recount-mate? Lieberman clearly relished the attention, and he appears to want more. He has always been able to draw the television cameras, often with his self-righteous, finger-wagging brand of guilt-tripping cultural conservatism. But he knows that in a presidential cycle, it's the Dems who run who will get the Larry King invitations. The big question: what does Lieberman offer Democratic primary voters? Are they pining for a politician who scolds Hollywood? Or a pro-business DLCer who helped block the establishment of stricter accounting rules for corporations? Lieberman has a decent environmental record, and in the past he has shown faint stirrings of consumer protectionism. He pushed for the independent 9/11 commission and a new Homeland Security Department. But he is best known for his center-right positioning within the party. In a crowded field, that might permit him to build a niche, but it is not the sort of politics that typically excites Democrats in the primaries. Will he have a claim on Gore-Lieberman loyalists? Doubtful. Voters have short memories. Moreover, in 2000, he was a sidecar. Gore turned to Lieberman, who had chastised Bill Clinton, to obtain non-Monica balance. Sidecars do not accelerate on their own.
Obvious point: He is Jewish, and Jews make up 2.2 percent of the population. Voters tend to vote for pols who they sense are like them. Can Lieberman's Jewish piety be a substitute for default-position Christianity?
Less-than-obvious point: If there is--God forbid (as Lieberman would say more than once)--a cataclysmic event and Bush has failed to prevent it or has responded poorly, might Democratic voters (and independents in states where they can vote in a party's primary) hunger for a preachy leader who can speak to the other side?
Edwards. He says he wants to be president to help "regular people." He really cares about "regular people." And, by the way, do you know he has policy proposals that will benefit "regular people." As a Washington p.r. specialist said to me recently, "I don't know if that is a good choice of words. Most people like to think of themselves as 'special,' not 'regular.'" Edwards, the son of a mill worker, is casting himself as a Southern populist, and he's blasting the latest Bush tax cuts, while calling on his fellow Dems to spend less. He is the only drawler in the contest, but the millionaire-lawyer rates low on the "Bubba" scale. Does he start with a regional base? Maybe. (Quick, Edwards, name five NASCAR drivers.) But political handicappers say he's not that popular in his home state--and he is up for reelection next year. Should he stay (in NC) or should he go (national)? Edwards can be impressive at a committee hearing. Over a year ago, at a judiciary committee session, he sliced and diced Attorney General John Ashcroft on the subject of military tribunals. It was as entertaining as watching a television court drama or the big trial scene of a Grisham movie. But when he appeared before a group of progressive activists and policy-shapers last spring, he was flat. Edwards kept asserting his concern for RPs, but displayed little depth. Yet in a more intimate meeting with possible left-leaning donors he dazzled.
Obvious point: A measly four years in public office. Before that he only voted in seven out of thirteen elections. And he doesn't remember who he fancied in the 1992 Democratic primary contest. These are not the times for on-the-job training at the White House. Gray hair trumps good hair.
Less-than-obvious point: Edwards is a fast learner. He--or his staff--are able to jump into issues, such as homeland security, privacy, or intelligence-gathering, and offer substantial (if not always correct) ideas.
Kerry. If Democratic voters crave gravitas and seriousness, John Kerry can supply it in buckets. The rap on this Vietnam war hero who became a leading and eloquent war opponent is that he is too somber, too patrician (a result of establishment Yankee breeding), that he lacks the "touch" of successful street-level pols. More charisma than charm. He's been working on that, telling reporters about his motorcycle jaunts. Policy-wise, he's taken a lead among Democrats in opposing Bush's tax cuts and questioning (not too harshly) Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism. But he did vote to grant Bush the power to go to war against Saddam Hussein when Bush sees fit. The enviros consider Kerry a stalwart ally; he promised to filibuster legislation that would open the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling. He has supported public financing for elections. Kerry does have a tendency to look for ways to distinguish himself ideologically from his state's senior senator, Ted Kennedy, the liberal's liberal. Ten years ago, he raised what he would call "hard questions" about affirmative action. That infuriated civil rights advocates, even though Kerry declared he did not intend to retreat on his support for affirmative action. He has been an ardent free-trader and voted for welfare-reform. After the state teacher's union rallied members for Kerry during his tough 1996 reelection contest, he came out against teacher tenure and attacked the union's contracts.
Of the Democratic contestants, Kerry is one of the few--if not the only one--to have demonstrated political courage. In the 1980s, as chairman of a foreign affairs subcommittee, he investigated the contra-drug connection (and what the CIA knew of it), the BCCI scandal (which involved a crooked, politically wired bank), and Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up, CIA-linked Panamanian dictator. For all this, Kerry took a lot of crap--from the Republican White House, the CIA, and his fellow Democrats. He hung tough.
Obvious point: A liberal (whether he says so or not) from Massachusetts. End of story.
Less-than-obvious point: Kerry has, at times, been a dispassionate advocate driven by deep concerns. Can he stay in touch with his inner-crusader?
Gephardt. One mo' time. There is no one in the pack who appears to have more desire to be president. Of the first wave, he is the only guy who has previously sought the White House. In the 1988 race, he won the Iowa caucuses, was then savagely attacked by his Democratic foes for having flip-flopped on issues, came in second in New Hampshire, and ran out of money and gas. His twenty-six-year-long career has been marked by a conflict between two Gephardts. There's been the Gephardt who sought to add corporate funding to the financial base of the party and who leaned toward New Democratism (as a founder of the DLC), and there's been the Gephardt who champions labor unions and working-families-first economics and challenges the imperatives of corporate-friendly free trade. The elections of 1994, in which Newt Gingrich and the Republicans gained control of the House, appears, in retrospect, to have pushed him solidly to the non-NewDem side. But 9/11 was rough for this politician. He surgically attached himself to the President on national security matters, believing he still could assail Bush for poorly serving the public on the domestic front. It didn't wash. You cannot praise a commander-in-chief for doing a wonderful job protecting Americans and then turn around and say, "By the way, this SOB is an untrustworthy corporate-kowtower who wants to screw working Americans in order to help out his pals at the country club." Maybe there was no winning message that could have been crafted for the Democrats in the post-9/11 environment. Still, something would have been better than nothing. Before the elections, one poll showed that few voters had any idea what the Dems would do if they controlled Congress (while these people believed they did have a fix on GOP intentions). That was Gephardt's bad. And in the course of messing up, he undermined the efforts of House Democrats who tried to block the legislation authorizing Bush to declare war on Iraq. These Democrats comprised a majority of his caucus.
Obvious point: Lots of friends in labor, but in four straight elections, he failed to win back the House. Why should the Democrats give this guy the keys to the car? Can AFL-CIO president John Sweeney break the news to him?
Less-than-obvious point: Of all the possible candidates, Gephardt will be less able to criticize Bush should the president not have a good war in Iraq. But if the economy derails, Gephardt has more experience than the others in talking (and thinking) about the fine details of economic policy.
Daschle. [He's out of it. But for those readers already nostalgic for the near-campaign of Tom Daschle, here is what I had to say about his prospective bid before he bailed.] Loses the Senate, looks for a promotion. Daschle did not embrace Commander Bush as passionately as Gephardt did, but he deserves a portion of the blame for his party's inability to promote an effective message in the last elections. To be fair, as Senate majority leader, Daschle had to corral an ideologically incoherent collection of full or partial egomaniacs, while defending a one-vote majority. How could anyone get Zell Miller and Barbara Boxer to pull together? Perhaps that was beyond the powers of a mere mortal. Daschle, certainly, was unable to keep the Senate Democrats united against Bush's massive, feed-the-rich tax cuts, and that put them in a box from the outset. On occasion, he has been a tough political player--he did orchestrate the Jeffords jump--but always comporting himself with a Midwestern niceness. In the recent Senate contest in South Dakota--a proxy battle between Daschle and Bush--Daschle barely managed a win in his own backyard, as the Democratic incumbent, Tim Johnson, squeaked past the White House's handpicked candidate, John Thune, by only 524 votes. At a Washington, DC, memorial service for Paul Wellstone in November, Daschle delivered a moving eulogy in which he praised his deceased colleague for having been "the soul of the Senate." A loaded question for Daschle: why did the Senate, on your watch, need a soul? Freed of the burden of leading the unleadable, will Daschle reveal his own soul? What does it look like? In a smaller field, in an election cycle when the Democrats had poor prospects, Daschle would make an adequate--mostly liberal--standard-bearer/sacrificial lamb--much better than Bob Dole made for his party. On his own, though, what does Daschle offer--beyond a pleasant manner? What does he stand for and how does that separate him from the gaggle? That such a question needs to be asked is not an asset for him.
Obvious point. See Gephardt.
Less-than-obvious point: If Daschle is not the Democrats' leader in the Senate, why pay attention to him? His colleagues may not cotton to Daschle campaigning for president while his top priority (as their leader) is supposed to be getting them reelected. Senate Democrats already realize they will face a particularly difficult time in 2004. They want a leader who is attentive to their needs, not his own.
Dean. For all those millions of Democratic voters who still miss Bruce Babbitt--okay, dozens--Dean starts out as their man. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, he is a stockbroker-turned-doctor-turned-politician. A Jimmy Carter of the North? He hopes so. He has been skeptical of what seems to be the coming war in Iraq. His signature issue is healthcare. In the Green Mountain State, he tried to pass comprehensive insurance coverage and flopped. He then succeeded with a plan that, in essence, made certain that all children in the state were covered. For policy wonks still nursing a post-Hillarycare hangover, he's the hair of the dog. But he left his state in the hands of a Republican governor. What went wrong?
Obvious point: Who?
Less-than-obvious point: Not a bad pick for veep. The Democrats need someone who can compete with the new Republican Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, when it comes to saving the lives of passers-by.
Sharpton. Many who recall the ugly Tawana Brawley incident of the late 1980s (and if you don't, consider yourself lucky) will have a tough time accepting Sharpton as a legitimate political voice. And he has steadfastly refused to apologize for his inflammatory role in that nasty episode, proclaiming his defiant stance evidence of his strength and commitment. There is also his reported stint as an FBI snitch in the 1980s. Does that count as previous government experience? (Sharpton denied he had been an informant.) But in recent years, Sharpton has recast himself as the Jesse Jackson stand-in--he hails Jackson as his "surrogate father"--in part by doing some heavy lifting on police brutality and racial profiling. Yet he has not followed the Jackson model in reaching out beyond his racial-issues base. He may develop the most straight-down-the-line progressive message of all the candidates, centered on an unflinching opposition to the war against Iraq. But can he revive the twin foundations of Jackson's influential candidacies of 1984 and 1988--coalitional progressive politics and a Southern strategy that nets delegates? An early guess: no. Weighed down by his own history, Sharpton has not yet demonstrated he can expand his vision. He has trimmed down but not reinvented himself nearly far enough.
Obvious point: I have a scheme. (Sorry, old biases die hard.)
Less-than-obvious point: If he does show an ability to attract significant support among African-American voters, will the white candidates court that bloc less?
And the other candidates? They have to dip more than a toe in the water to warrant a preliminary and sketchy assessment. It's explore-or-get-off-the-train time. The pith helmets are going fast.
Perhaps Henry Kissinger will escape final (on-this-earth) judgement. No trial for war crimes. No public shunning for his lying ways. No disinvitation from Nightline. Three judges in three different countries (Chile, France, Spain) have recently targeted him for questioning in cases involving human rights abuses in Chile in the 1970s, and Chilean human rights victims are suing him in the United States. (Kissinger directed the secret US program that aimed to overthrow the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile and then supported the murderous regime of the military tyrants who mounted a coup against Allende.) But so far he has not had to enter the dock. He continues to pontificate freely about US foreign policy on op-ed pages and during media appearances.
But his public career appears to be ending on an ugly note. On Friday, the former Secretary of State removed himself as head of the commission created to study the failures of 9/11. Three days later, Bush chose former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, a moderate, well-regarded Republican not known for possessing much insight or experience related to national security, as Kissinger's replacement. President George W. Bush had selected Kissinger the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in a give-them-the-finger move aimed at the Democrats and the 9/11 family members who had pushed, over White House objections, for the commission. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had agreed to the commission's formation, only after winning concessions granting the president the right to name the head of the commission and ensuring that subpoenas could only be issued with the approval of six of the commission's ten members. With the panel divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, that meant the White House would not have to worry about Democrats on their own issuing demands for (possibly embarrassing) information from the White House concerning what Bush and his aides knew of the al Qaeda threat before 9/11 and how they had responded. To further protect the White House, Republicans have resisted the families' call for apppointing former Senator Warren Rudman, who previously co-chaired a national commission on terrorism, to the panel. Though a Republican, Rudman has a maverick streak and might sign on to subpoenas proposed by Democrats. Kean, by the way, is no Rudman.
Kissinger, an international consultant for transnational corporations, claimed he was forced to retreat to avoid a nasty fight over disclosing his clients. After Bush tapped Kissinger, much of the fuss over his appointment concerned his business ties--not his record as a prevaricator, his embrace of human rights-abusing regimes, or his experiences as a practitioner of secret warfare and a stonewaller. Kissinger maintained he has no clients--such as overseas governments or foreign firms--that would compromise his supposed independence. But that was not the point. Kissinger pockets millions of dollars advising US-based corporations looking to do business overseas, sometimes in countries where the government controls what firms receive what contracts. Consequently, Kissinger has a strong personal interest in maintaining friendly relations with foreign governments. If he is assisting US companies eager to do business in Saudi Arabia, could he be the independent-minded chair of a commission that might have to examine the role of the Saudi government in encouraging (or curtailing) terrorism? That is why it was important for the public to see his client list.
Kissinger tried to skirt the disclosure laws by telling the 9/11 families he would reveal his clients to a third party chosen by the relatives, an intermediary who would keep the names secret. And the White House tried to rescue the appointment by declaring Kissinger an executive branch appointment not subject to legislative disclosure requirements. (At one point, Kissinger or administration officials indicated to the 9/11 families that he would only be working one day a week on the commission and, thus, as a part-timer would be exempt from disclosure requirements.) None of the ruses worked. After the Senate Ethics Committee rebuffed White House pressure and released a legal opinion stating that all members of the commission would have to disclose their business connections, Kissinger bailed. (Former Senator George Mitchell, chosen by the Democrats to be vice-chair of the panel, had already withdrawn, citing time constraints and an unwillingness to take a leave from his law firm. Former Representative Lee Hamilton, who went into think-tankery instead of bucks-chasing after leaving public office, took Mitchell's spot.)
At the end of the day, Kissinger allowed private-sector enrichment to trump public service. His business was more important than answering the president's call. Of course, he was the wrong man for a job--a proven liar, a fan of government secrecy, a sycophant with no record of challenging presidents, a longtime coddler of state terrorists. All that aside, he was not willing to sacrifice for his country. Kissinger allies asserted he had signed confidentiality agreements with his clients and was not free to disclose the deals. But he could have asked these corporations for permission to name them, arguing that in these unusual circumstances such a step was necessary for the good of the nation. He also reportedly feared that, even if he made his clientele list public, his critics would have hounded him until he sold his firm. Administration officials told reporters Kissinger, in the words of The New York Times, "decided that severing his ties to his company was too big a price to pay for returning to public service."
Kissinger's greed is the nation's gain. His appointment was an insult both to citizens who deserve accountability from their government and to the 9/11 families who still yearn for answers. Yet this episode exposed Kissinger's true concerns. It may well be the last chapter in his public life; if so, it is a fitting end to a career of perverted values. And perhaps he has unwittingly served the public. His controversial selection and his less-than-noble departure brought much-needed public attention to the panel. Kissinger is gone, but, after all, the White House's desire for a controllable commission remains.
It was at the time of the October 26 antiwar rally in Washington--where tens of thousands of demonstrators heard speakers oppose war against Iraq and demand the destruction of capitalism, the end of Zionism, the liberation of convicted cop-killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and Jamil Al-Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown), and the release of five imprisoned Cuban spies--that longtime nonviolence advocate David Cortright and several other activists decided there was a pressing need to put together what Cortright calls "a broader, more mainstream coalition" to oppose unilateral US military action in Iraq.
The October 26 protest--one of the more prominent antiwar actions so far--had been organized by International ANSWER, a group dominated by the Workers World Party, a small revolutionary-socialist outfit with a fancy for North Korea's Kim Jong-Il and the goal of abolishing private property. So it was no surprise that the antiwar message--which, according to polls, resonates with at least one-third of Americans--was accessorized with the demands of the fringe far-left. Nor was it a shocker that many speakers did not adopt a give-inspections-a-chance position. The WWP, which hails world leaders that stand against US hegemony (such as Slobodan Milosevic), opposes weapons inspections in Iraq and has assumed the task of trying to steer the antiwar movement away from endorsing them. ANSWER eschews criticism of Saddam Hussein.
Cortright, who was executive director of SANE from 1977 to 1987 (when it was the largest peace organization in the United States) and his colleagues in Washington were looking to assemble an opposition that would possess wider appeal, that would press a message that extends beyond a no-to-war demand and endorses an alternative to military action. In the meantime, television actor Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H and Providence) and longtime movie producer/director Robert Greenwald (Steal This Movie) had weeks earlier begun an effort to round up Hollywood folks for a statement opposing unilateral war against Iraq and supporting the United Nations' weapons-inspection process. "It was just the two of us with two computers," says Greenwald. "We sent out an email to friends, who sent it to their friends. We were surprised the response was so positive so soon. We thought people would be more hesitant." (Greenwald has just finished a movie for CBS on the Enron scandal, in which Farrell plays disgraced Enron chief Kenneth Lay; it is set to air on January 5.)
In November, the Washington and Hollywood endeavors converged. And this week, several large organizations of a progressive bent--the NAACP, the National Council of Churches, the National Organization of Women--and 100 or so entertainers are launching the Win Without War coalition, described by its organizers as the "new mainstream coalition to oppose Bush war policy." The leaders of this project don't put down ANSWER, but this clearly is an attempt to recast and reshape the antiwar opposition.
In the rollout, Hollywood went first. At a press conference on December 10 attended by actors Tony Shalhoub, David Clennon, Martin Sheen and Farrell, the entertainment crowd unveiled a letter to George W. Bush declaring its support for Win Without War. The short missive has been signed by Gillian Anderson, Kim Basinger, Matt Damon, David Duchovny, Laurence Fishburne, Jeananne Garofalo, Ethan Hawke, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Lange, the members of REM, Noah Wyle, and dozens more, including two former US ambassadors.
Their letter begins: "War talk in Washington is alarming and unnecessary. We are patriotic Americans who share the belief that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction. We support rigorous UN weapons inspections to assure Iraq's effective disarmament." But the group argues "a preemptive military invasion of Iraq will harm America's national interests. Such a war will increase human suffering, arouse animosity toward our country, increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy, and undermine our moral standing in the world." The Win Without War artists accept "the valid US and UN objective of disarming Saddam Hussein." They want to achieve that not by "first-strike attacks," but by "legal diplomatic means." At the press conference, retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll Jr. reported that he had spoken with retired General Anthony Zinni, former head of US Central Command, and Zinni agreed with the coalition's position.
The organizations Cortright recruited for Win Without War--which also includes MoveOn.org and Working Assets--are expected to issue a formal announcement of the coalition's formation on December 11. Earlier in the week, Win Without War organizers noted ithe Sierra Club was considering signing up. No unions are yet participating, but there have been preliminary conversations between Win Without War reps and labor officials.
The Win Without War message does differ from the antiwar declarations that only decry oil-greedy US imperialism. "We're trying to spread as wide a net as possible," says Greenwald. "Millions of Americans have doubts about the war. We want to get the word out: you're not alone. And it doesn't do any good to speak to a small group. We've designed this to try to create a broader impact." The coalition acknowledges that Saddam poses a problem--not a direct and immediate threat to the United States, as the White House suggests, but a threat that still needs to be confronted. "This is a different message beyond the traditional antiwar message," Cortright remarks. "We're for a sound, credible security policy that addresses threats. Saddam Hussein and Iraq are a potential threat, due to Iraq's weapons capacity, and there has to be a way to deal with it. Peaceful and diplomatic means have to be pursued. The positioning of this message is extremely important. We have the potential to build broad support."
The coalition's central demand is, let the UN and its weapons inspectors do their jobs. But what if Saddam thwarts the inspectors or they find he has ready-to-go weapons of mass destruction? Would Win Without War back a UN-sanctioned military response? Elements of the coalition are pacifists, according to Cortright; most are not: "There might be circumstances where some of our groups would support [military action against Iraq], such as if there were explicit authorization from the UN Security Council." Greenwald notes that the artists' statement "leaves open the possibility of a multilateral attack. We felt it was premature to get into that. The biggest point of agreement among the signers is that the United States should follow the law, follow the Security Council."
Cortright concedes that Win Without War got a late start. (Some Washington prognosticators are claiming--more as a hunch than an educated guess--that a US military assault could come as early as January.) "We didn't begin this until the October rally," he notes, "and it takes time to get a national coalition together." He expects the coalition to sponsor advertisements and draw on the membership of its component organizations to mount local actions. "Some of our groups might participate in big marches," he says, "but that's not our focus." The Hollywood contingent wants to deploy its celebs to gain media notice for the antiwar position. "We know we'll be dismissed by some, we will be infantalized," says Greenwald. "We'll have to see how far they go in this."
One slogan being used by Win Without War is "Keep America Safe"--a sign its creators are hoping to encourage opposition to a unilateral invasion without bemoaning US interventionism, appearing soft on Saddam or terrorism, or coming across as harsh critics of America at home and abroad. (The latter may not always be easy. In an interview with UPI, actor Ed Asner, a signer of the Win Without War statement, said of the American public, "They're sheep. They like [Bush] enough to credit him with saving the nation after 9/11. Three thousand people get killed, and everybody thinks they're next on the list. The president comes along, and he's got his six-guns strapped on, and people think he's going to save them.") Also, the coalition is not preparing to compete with the WWP-controlled ANSWER and its highly motivated cadre of volunteers in the street-protest category. And its internal cohesion may be tested in the future, if events occur in Iraq that persuade the UN Security Council--or several of its members--that force must be used to deal with Saddam. But until such a development occurs, the main question is, can a self-professed "mainstream" antiwar coalition bearing a nuanced message succeed and attract many more people to the stop-the-war cause?
There may not be enough time to derail precipitous US action, but before the antiwar movement even has a shot at preventing or curtailing a US first-strike, it must grow much larger. Bringing tens of thousands of protesters to Washington on a Saturday--or even the 100,000-plus ANSWER claimed for its October 26 event--is not going to impress or worry the decisionmakers of the nation's capital. That's a tiny slice of America. (See Asner's comments above.) The antiwar movement, as Bush might say, has to raise the pie higher--a lot higher. If Win Without War takes off, Americans critical or skeptical of the president's apparent policy will have an outlet for dissent unencumbered by the wackiness of the WWP. And the antiwar movement will benefit from the institutional strengths of the coalition's founding partners. Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Dick Cheney do not yet have to fear that citizen action is going to interfere with their plans. ("Look out, here comes Ed Begley Jr.") But an effective Win Without War coalition could move the antiwar campaign in a direction that causes the White House--or, maybe at best, other politicians and perhaps even the reportedly reluctant military--to take notice.
Asking Henry Kissinger to investigate government malfeasance or nonfeasance is akin to asking Slobodan Milosevic to investigate war crimes. Pretty damn akin, since Kissinger has been accused, with cause, of engaging in war crimes of his own. Moreover, he has been a poster-child for the worst excesses of secret government and secret warfare. Yet George W. Bush has named him to head a supposedly independent commission to investigate the nightmarish attacks of September 11, 2001, a commission intended to tell the public what went wrong on and before that day. This is a sick, black-is-white, war-is-peace joke--a cruel insult to the memory of those killed on 9/11 and a screw-you affront to any American who believes the public deserves a full accounting of government actions or lack thereof. It's as if Bush instructed his advisers to come up with the name of the person who literally would be the absolute worst choice for the post and, once they had, said, "sign him up."
Hyperbole? Consider the record.
Vietnam. Kissinger participated in a GOP plot to undermine the 1968 Paris peace talks in order to assist Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. Once in office, Nixon named Kissinger his national security adviser, and later appointed him secretary of state. As co-architect of Nixon's war in Vietnam, Kissinger oversaw the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, an arguably illegal operation estimated to have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Bangladesh. In 1971, Pakistani General Yahya Khan, armed with US weaponry, overthrew a democratically-elected government in an action that led to a massive civilian bloodbath. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Kissinger blocked US condemnation of Khan. Instead, he noted Khan's "delicacy and tact."
Chile. In the early 1970s, Kissinger oversaw the CIA's extensive covert campaign that assisted coup-plotters, some of whom eventually overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende and installed the murderous military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. On June 8, 1976, at the height of Pinochet's repression, Kissinger had a meeting with Pinochet and behind closed doors told him that "we are sympathetic to what you are trying to do here," according to minutes of the session (which are quoted in Peter Kornbluh's forthcoming book, The Pinochet File.)
East Timor. In 1975, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger, still serving as secretary of state, offered advance approval of Indonesia's brutal invasion of East Timor, which took the lives of tens of thousands of East Timorese. For years afterward, Kissinger denied the subject ever came up during the December 6, 1975, meeting he and Ford held with General Suharto, Indonesia's military ruler, in Jarkata. But a classified US cable obtained by the National Security Archive shows otherwise. It notes that Suharto asked for "understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action" in East Timor. Ford said, "We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem you have and the intentions you have." The next day, Suharto struck East Timor. Kissinger is an outright liar on this subject.
Argentina. In 1976, as a fascistic and anti-Semitic military junta was beginning its so-called "dirty war" against supposed subversives--between 9,000 and 30,000 people would be "disappeared" by the military over the next seven years--Argentina's foreign minister met with Kissinger and received what he believed was tacit encouragement for his government's violent efforts. According to a US cable released earlier this year, the foreign minister was convinced after his chat with Kissinger that the United States wanted the Argentine terror campaign to end soon--not that Washington was dead-set against it. The cable said that the minister had left his meeting with Kissinger "euphoric." Two years later, Kissinger, then a private citizen, traveled to Buenos Aires as the guest of dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla and praised the junta for having done, as one cable put it, "an outstanding job in wiping out terrorist forces." As Raul Castro, the US ambassador to Argentina, noted at the time in a message to the State Department, "My only concern is that Kissinger's repeated high praise for Argentina's action in wiping out terrorism...may have gone to some considerable extent to his hosts' heads....There is some danger that Argentines may use Kissinger's laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance." That is, Kissinger was, in a way, enabling torture, kidnapping and murder.
Appropriately, Kissinger is a man on the run for his past misdeeds. He is the target of two lawsuits, and judges overseas have sought him for questioning in war-crimes-related legal actions. In the United States, the family of Chilean General Rene Schneider sued Kissinger last year. Schneider was shot on October 22, 1970, by would-be coup-makers working with CIA operatives. These CIA assets were part of a secret plan authorized by Nixon--and supervised by Kissinger--to foment a coup before Allende, a Socialist, could be inaugurated as president. Schneider, a constitutionalist who opposed a coup, died three days later. This secret CIA program in Chile--dubbed "Track Two"--gave $35,000 to Schneider's assassins after the slaying. Michael Tigar, an attorney for the Schneider family, claims, "Our case shows, document by document, that [Kissinger] was involved in great detail in supporting the people who killed General Schneider, and then paid them off."
On September 9, 2001, 60 Minutes aired a segment on the Schneider family's charges against Kissinger. The former secretary of state came across as partly responsible for what is the Chilean equivalent of the JFK assassination. It was a major blow to his public image: Kissinger cast as a supporter of terrorists. Two days later, Osama bin Laden struck. Immediately, Kissinger was again on television, but now as a much-in-demand expert on terrorism.
In another lawsuit, filed earlier this month, eleven Chilean human rights victims--including relatives of people murdered after Pinochet's coup--claimed Kissinger knowingly provided practical assistance and encouragement to the Pinochet regime. Kissinger's codefendant in the case is Michael Townley, an American-born Chilean agent who was a leading international terrorist in the mid-1970s. In his most notorious operation, Townley in 1976 planted a car-bomb that killed Orlando Letelier, Allende's ambassador to the United States, and Ronni Moffitt, Letelier's colleague, on Washington's embassy row.
Kissinger has more trouble than these lawsuits. The Chilean Supreme Court sent the State Department questions for Kissinger about the death of Charles Horman, an American journalist killed during the 1973 coup in Chile. (Horman's murder was the subject of the 1982 film Missing.) A criminal judge in Chile has said he might include Kissinger in his investigation of Operation Condor, a now infamous secret project, in which the security services of Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina worked together to kidnap and murder political opponents. (Letelier was killed in a Condor operation.) The Spanish judge who requested the 1998 arrest of Pinochet in Great Britain has declared he wants to question Kissinger as a witness in his inquiry into crimes against humanity committed by Pinochet and other Latin American military dictators. In France, a judge probing the disappearance of five French citizens in Chile during the Pinochet years wants to talk to Kissinger. Last May, he sent police to a Paris hotel, where Kissinger was staying, to serve him questions. In February, Kissinger canceled a trip to Brazil, where he was to be awarded a medal by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. His would-be hosts said he had pulled out to avoid protests by human rights groups.
A fellow who has coddled state-sponsored terrorism has been put in charge of this terrorism investigation. A proven liar has been assigned the task of finding the truth. By the way, in 1976, when Kissinger was secretary of state, he was informed by his chief aide for Latin America that South American military regimes were intending to use Operation Condor "to find and kill" political opponents. Kissinger quickly dispatched a cable instructing US ambassadors in the Condor countries to note Washington's "deep concern." But it seems no such warnings were actually conveyed. And a month later, this order was rescinded. The next day, Letelier and Moffit were murdered. (Peter Kornbluh and journalist John Dinges recently chronicled this sad Kissinger episode in The Washington Post.) Kissinger's State Department had not responded with the force needed to thwart the official terrorism of its friends in South America. Perhaps this provides Kissinger experience useful for examining the government's failure to prevent more recent acts of terrorism.
Other qualifications for the job, as Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney might see it? A leaks-obsessed Kissinger, when he served as Nixon's national security adviser, wiretapped his own staff. (One of his targets, Morton Halperin, sued and eventually won an apology.) And when he left office, Kissinger took tens of thousands of pages of documents--created by government employees on government time--and treated them as his personal records, using them for his own memoirs and keeping the material for years from the prying eyes of historians and journalists. He and the Bush-Cheney White House agree on open government: the less the better.
Remember, the White House was never keen on setting up an independent commission that would answer to the public. Cheney at one point reportedly intervened to block a compromise that had been painstakingly worked out in Congress regarding the composition and rules of the commission. Finally, the White House said okay, as long as it could pick the chairman and subpoenas would only be issued with the support of at least six of the commission's ten members. With Kissinger in control, the secret-keepers of the White House--who already have succeeded in preventing the House and Senate intelligence committees' investigation of 9/ll from releasing embarrassing and uncomfortable information--will have little reason to fear.
The Bush-Cheney administration has been a rehab center for tainted Republicans. Retired Admiral John Poindexter, a leading Iran-contra player, was placed in charge of a sensitive, high-tech, Pentagon intelligence-gathering operation aimed at reviewing massive amounts of individual personal data in order to uncover possible terrorists. Elliott Abrams, who pled guilty to lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal, was warmly embraced and handed a staff position in Bush's National Security Council. But the Kissinger selection is the most outrageous of these acts of compassion and forgiveness. It is a move of defiance and hubris.
For many in the world, Kissinger is a symbol of US arrogance and the misuse of American might. In power, he cared more for US credibility and geostrategic advantage than for human rights and open government. His has been a career of covertly moving chips, not one of letting them fall. He is not a truth-seeker. In fact, he has prevaricated about his own actions and tried to limit access to government information. He should be subpoenaed, not handed the right to subpoena. He is a target, not an investigator.
With Kissinger's appointment, Bush has rendered the independent commission a sham. Democrats should have immediately announced they would refuse to fill their allotted five slots. But after Bush picked Kissinger, the Democrats tapped former Democratic Senator George Mitchell to be vice-chairman of the panel, signaling that Kissinger was fine by them. How unfortunate. The public would be better served and the victims of 9/11 better honored by no commission rather than one headed by Kissinger.
These are times of threat and crisis. So say the leaders of our government, and maybe they are right. Al Qaeda, they report, is on the rise, and terrorism alerts have been issued. The message: expect something big--"spectacular," said one memo--to happen any day now. On top of that, the President and most of Congress warn that Saddam Hussein poses a severe danger--perhaps a nuclear risk--requiring immediate and complete neutralization. There is not a second to lose, for at any moment he might develop a nuclear bomb--that is, if he hasn't already!--and slip it to the operatives of Osama bin Laden's resurgent terrorist network. Meanwhile, the sluggish economy persists, and millions of unemployed workers will be walloped by a suspension in unemployment benefits during the holiday season.
How does Congress meet its responsibilities in such a perilous period? It skips town--without careful consideration of the homeland security bill, without finishing up its budget business, without providing funding for the newest domestic security measures, without completing work on extending unemployment payments, without carefully vetting the latest anti-terrorism surveillance measures being embraced by the Bush administration, and without providing further oversight of Bush's movement toward war against Iraq.
Both Democrats and Republicans share fault. Each party was eager to wrap up the lame duck session, which had been arranged when Congress failed to take care of much of its business by mid-October. (After all, senators and representatives up for reelection had to hurry home to campaign.) But in the post-election session, the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House rushed through important tasks and ignored others.
Top on its to-do list was okaying legislation creating a homeland security department. Congress did so, but at a cost. The 74-year-old Democratic Senator Robert Byrd complained on the Senate floor that the 484-page homeland security legislation was plopped on senators' desk: "It has not been before any committee. There have been no hearings on this bill. There have been no witnesses who were asked to appear to testify on behalf of the bill or in opposition. It did not undergo any such scrutiny....The American people expect us to provide our best judgment and our best insight into such monumental decisions. This is a far, far cry from being our best...If I had to go before the bar of judgment tomorrow and were asked by the eternal God what is in this bill, I could not answer God."
God may not care about the details of this piece of legislation, but the public--and, certainly, its elected representatives--should. The measure marked the largest reorganization of the government in five decades. It is a project that will require 12 to 18 months (if not more) to complete. Yet George W. Bush and the GOPers called for quick passage, and the Democrats (after putting up a losing fight in the Senate over several special-interest gifts tucked into the bill) acceded. Given the time needed to pull together the new department, it did not matter greatly if Congress approved this legislation in mid-November or waited a month or two and used that extra time to read the bill and rid it of those corporate perks (such as the provision granting drug manufacturer Eli Lilly protection from a particular class of lawsuits). And it might not matter (in terms of providing more security) whether such a Cabinet-level department is ever set up. Critics and government-organization specialists have argued that the new department might have to spend so much time and so many resources dealing with internal bureaucratic issues (who answers to whom, who gets what parking space, what offices are merged or purged) that the mission at hand--preventing acts of terrorism against the United States--will be undermined. A few months back, the Brookings Institution released a report raising serious questions about this sort of reorganization. As one terrorism expert says, "In Washington, if you cannot eat something or make love to it, you reorganize it." Byrd huffed, "This is a hoax...This bill does nothing--not a thing--to make our citizens more secure today or tomorrow."
Byrd has a penchant for dramatic rhetoric. But, then, so does Bush. When he signed the legislation on November 25, he declared, "we are taking historic action to defend the United States and protect our citizens against the dangers of a new era....This essential reform was carefully considered by Congress." Bush, you might recall, spent about nine months after 9/11 opposing such a reorganization, maintaining it would not increase security for Americans. But when questions were raised about his administration's performance prior to the attacks, he quickly pivoted and called for lickety-split approval of his own legislation setting up a new department. The ensuing debate in Congress focused mostly on Bush's attempts (successful in the end) to deep-six workplace protections for the department's employees. (Democrats howled; Republicans cheered.) Conservatives in and out of Congress were not all enamored with this big-government response to September 11, but they mostly kept mum, and few Democrats examined the wisdom of rushing ahead with this reshuffling.
What made the rush to enact this legislation all the more silly was that it came as Congress failed to address more immediate security concerns. As the Senate and House got hung up on the homeland security department bill and legislation authorizing Bush to declare war on Iraq whenever he sees fit, both houses failed to find the time to pass most appropriations bills. The government continues to operate because the Senate and the House approved a stopgap measure keeping programs funded at their current levels. But this means money is not available for new homeland security initiatives--emergency response, bio-chemical weapons defense, and much more--and now this new funding may not hit the relevant agencies until the middle of 2003. Take a step back and survey the scene: supposedly vital programs designed to protect Americans are going unfunded, and Congress skedaddles for seven weeks.
Yet no one has to pay for such dereliction of duty--partly because it's a bipartisan evasion. The Democrats could have tried to stir up a fuss, perhaps demand Congress remain in session to deal more thoroughly with the homeland security bill and to appropriate funds for counter-terrorism programs (as well as tend to the unemployed). But they often fret about coming across as obstructionists. And Senate Democrats had recently witnessed their colleague, Max Cleland of Georgia, lose in the election thanks to an underhanded commercial that cited his votes against the homeland security bill and questioned his patriotism. (Cleland apparently was vulnerable because he lost only three limbs while serving in Vietnam.) It was understandable that Democrats were spooked by the possibility of being branded anti-homeland. Still, in Washington, there is always justification for caution. The bottom line--politics aside--is that Congress is shirking fundamental responsibilities.
War may be at hand, a terrorist attack reminiscent of 9/11 may be imminent, and Congress vacates Washington as if nothing was different. What a lack of seriousness. Is al Qaeda taking time off?
It didn't take long.
That is, for Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, to run for cover. Days after her colleagues selected her to replace Dick "I'm Outta Here" Gephardt, Pelosi appeared on Meet The Press. Out of the box, Russert asked her about recent news reports on the increasing threat posed by a resurgent al Qaeda. Pelosi, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, confirmed the "threat is real" and added, "We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the President in the fight against terrorism." Is a new attack inevitable? Russert wondered. "That certainly is a possibility," she replied, and added, "We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the president."
Clearly, she had inherited page one from Gephardt's playbook: regarding terrorism, handcuff yourself to Bush. Russert asked if Pelosi supported the policy of monitoring Iraqis who are in the United States. She did not answer directly, and Russert, in his way, kept pushing. She remarked she was not familiar with the details of this particular initiative, but asserted, "I stand with the president in rooting out terrorism."
Russert turned to the subject of war in Iraq. He noted that Pelosi, who had voted against authorizing Bush to launch a war against Iraq whenever he wants, had said in September, "I have not seen the intelligence to justify the action that the president is suggesting....What is the threat that [Saddam] poses to the United States?" Russert then queried her, "Do you think that the situation with Iraq is a distraction from the war on terrorism?"
Her reply: "I don't think its a distr--I mean, any decision--I don't question a decision of the president of the United States on his timing or on the priority he gives a threat." But wasn't that precisely what she had done in the remark Russert had quoted? And hadn't she taken issue with Bush's priorities by voting against the resolution? If she believed there was no justification for action against Saddam, then she would have to consider a war against Saddam as something of a distraction. On national television, she was undressing politically--and undermining her previous stand and the arguments of fellow Democrats who had joined with her in opposing the it's-up-to-Bush war legislation.
Pelosi caved further. Russert asked what she would do if Bush declared that Saddam was thwarting inspections and ordered military action without consulting the United Nations. "If our young people are called to duty, certainly we'll support the action of the president," Pelosi answered. "I hope that it does not come to that." She commented that she preferred the conflict be resolved "diplomatically rather than just showing our power by going in militarily."
Had she given Bush a go-to-war-free card by signaling that she and other Democrats would not stand in the way should Bush decide to attack Iraq without support from allies? Russert tightened the knot: "But if the president decides to go unilaterally or with the British and the Turks without UN approval, you would support the president?"
"Yes, I would support the president," Pelosi replied. At least, she dropped the bit about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the guy. But where was the intellectual honesty? If, in her mind, the case has not been made that Saddam is a threat to the United States, why back a unilateral move? And why permit Bush--whose credibility she had previously challenged--to make the call on his own? Moments earlier, Pelosi had noted she fears a US strike against Iraq will have negative consequences for the war on terrorism. Consequently, in the event Bush does order such a war, it should be incumbent upon Pelosi, as someone whose job it is to protect Americans, to argue that a misguided action is under way. That, of course, would be a challenge, for extensive pro-war sentiment usually accompanies the initiation of military action. But with the position she has adopted, Pelosi doesn't have to fret in advance about being rolled. Instead, she is ready to salute.
Here is the Pelosi position: I'll argue with Bush over this life-and-death matter, but I won't criticize him if he makes a wrong decision that I believe imperils the nation, in fact, I'll endorse it. This is the sort of opposition that a president need not worry about.
George W. Bush is on a roll. The elections at home. The UN Security Council's 15-to-0 acceptance of a resolution calling for tough inspections in Iraq (which can be interpreted by the get-Saddam wing of the Bush Administration as an easement toward war). What's next? Osama bin Laden appears at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and turns himself in?
As Bush racks up political successes in the United States and at the UN, he positions himself for making the final call--to war or not. As of this writing, the word out of Baghdad is mixed. Arab diplomats and one of Saddam's sons indicate the Iraqi dictator is likely to agree to the UN resolution before the November 15 deadline. (You can watch the hourly countdown clock on Fox News Channel.) Yet Iraq's 250-member parliament in a unanimous vote--surprise, surprise--recommended the UN measure be rejected. Most experts quoted in the papers or interviewed on television say they believe Saddam will begrudgingly accept the resolution.
Assuming Saddam says "send 'em in," the issue will then become whether Iraq truly meets the strict conditions outlined in the resolution. If Saddam doesn't tell the UN--and Bush--to piss off, a debate is likely to ensue PDQ over whether Iraq is truly abiding by the terms of the resolution. It's no secret the Iraq-hawks in the Bush Administration are ready to blow the whistle as soon as the Iraqis delay an inspection team for half-a-minute or produce records that somebody somewhere claims are incomplete. Such instances could well be signs Saddam is not serious about permitting rigorous inspections, or they might be glitches of questionable significance. No doubt, there will be much public argument over all this. And the fellow with the loudest voice in the discussion will be Bush. The UN resolution does reserve for the Security Council the right to review Iraq's performance. But--as viewed by the White House--the resolution affords the Bush Administration the chance to render its own judgment and to act accordingly, without having to obtain the UN's permission. Consequently, war or peace will hang on how Bush evaluates what does or does not happen with the inspectors in Iraq.
And Bush's biases are clear. He has placed them on full display in recent weeks, making it tough to have confidence in his ability to weigh the evidence reasonably. A few days before the elections, at a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Bush, decrying Saddam, proclaimed, "This is a man who is close to having a nuclear weapon.... This is a dangerous man who cannot stand America because of what we love."
Regarding the first sentence, the Bush Administration has yet to produce any firm evidence that Saddam is "close" to possessing a nuclear weapon. The source for this? Bush himself. At several other pre-election gatherings, he qualified this assessment, as when he said, "He was close at one time to having a nuclear weapon. We don't know how close he is today." Perhaps Bush merely misspoke in Harrisburg when he said that Saddam "was close" to being a nuclear-armed tyrant. But it's an exaggeration all too in keeping with other statements he has issued. On the campaign trail, he also repeatedly noted Saddam has "had connections" with bin Laden's al Qaeda network and that Saddam wants to use al Qaeda--or "an al Qaeda-type network"--to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction. This may be so. But his Administration has notbacked up Bush's assertion with proof.
As for Bush's description of Saddam as "a dangerous man who cannot stand America because of what we love," one can only hope he doesn't believe this simplistic rhetoric. What precisely is it about American passions that ticks Saddam off? The nation's political freedoms and devotion to capitalism? If so, shouldn't he also be damn mad at Canada and Costa Rica? Bush, of course, is creating a comic-book version of reality, one that ignores geopolitics. Saddam's beef with the United States stems from the Gulf War--when the United States, after being something of a friend to him (by providing assistance during the Iran-Iraq war, supplying the building blocks of biological and chemical weapons, and encouraging agricultural and technical commerce) came to the rescue of oil autocracies and kicked Iraq out of Kuwait. Prior to that war, Saddam, who was then pursuing weapons of mass destruction, was not hyped as a threat to the United States by the Bush I and Reagan administrations. This is not to excuse Saddam's antipathy toward the United States. But Bush's insistence that the conflict is over "what we love" is another indication he cannot be trusted to judge a complicated inspections-compliance dispute.
Okay, maybe Bush got carried away with the rhetoric. But let's examine another recent incident in which Bush was asked about an incontrovertible fact regarding the Iraq controversy. At a November 7 White House press conference, a reporter tossed the President the following question:
"Your CIA director told Congress just last month that it appears that Saddam Hussein, 'Now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks against the United States,' but if we attacked him he would 'probably become much less constrained.' Is he wrong about that?"
The reporter was referring to a letter CIA chief George Tenet sent to Congress on October 7, and he had paraphased it accurately. Bush replied:
"I'm sure that he said other sentences. Let me just put it to you: I know George Tenet well. I meet with him every single day. He sees Saddam Hussein as a threat. I don't know what the context of that quote is. I'm telling you, the guy knows what I know, that he is a problem and we must deal with him. And, you know, it's like some people say, 'Oh, we must leave Saddam alone, otherwise, if we did something against him, he might attack us.' Well, if we don't do something he might attack us, and he might attack us with a more serious weapon. The man is a threat.... He's a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda.... And we're going to deal with him."
This is a remark that requires more words to explain than to make. Was Bush unfamiliar with the October 7 letter? How could that be? It had caused a major fuss, spurring newspaper headlines. The Tenet letter was a sharp retort to the claim that Saddam is an immediate threat. It conveyed the CIA's analysis of the danger Saddam presented in the near term. Had Bush never discussed--or been briefed on--the findings contained in the letter?
With his answer, Bush brushed aside an important part of the Iraq debate. Yes, Tenet had included other sentences in the letter--such as a self-serving explanation of why the CIA had not allowed the release of its conclusions sooner. And another sentence noted that a "senior intelligence witness" had testified at a secret Congressional hearing on October 2 that "the likelihood" that Saddam would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction "would be low."
The purpose of the letter was to share (belatedly) the CIA's assessment of what Saddam is likely to do. Notice how Bush, in his reply, emphasized what Saddam might do. Might is a broad concept--and often hard to challenge. Intelligence agencies, though, seek to determine what can be expected, in addition to what is possible. Bush appears to have missed--or intentionally ignored--that not-so-nuanced point. He could have said that he disagreed with the CIA's findings, or that he believed that Saddam--even if he were not to strike the United States soon--presents a long-term threat and must be confronted before it is too late. Instead, Bush practically denied the existence of the CIA estimate.
Then Bush went further by explicitly stating that Saddam is a danger because he is currently working with al Qaeda. That should have been a stop-the-presses newsflash. ("President Definitively Says Saddam in League with Al Qaeda.") Yet no media organ I have noticed ran with that story. Is that because they were too busy reporting that Bush, in this post-elections news conference, had been careful not to gloat over the results? Or because they don't take him seriously when he utters such statements? Either he was delivering an explosive charge without supporting it or mischaracterizing intelligence he had received.
Here is a President who willfully misrepresents--or who is unaware of--important CIA conclusions and who recklessly asserts as a fact that Saddam is now cooperating with al Qaeda. This is not the conduct of a man who is careful and deliberate in his estimation of disputes--nor the actions of a leader who realizes his obligation to be, above all, honest and forthright in offering the case for war. If Saddam does try to thwart the intentions of the UN, American leadership will be required to fashion an appropriate and effective response. Yet Bush will be a referee who cannot be trusted, deciding what fouls warrant death and destruction.
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was barely into his post-Election Day press conference when he smiled and said, "I know I cost the Bush family a little money." Spoken like a true fundraiser. He meant that the Democrats, by mounting what seemed to be a competitive campaign in Florida against Governor Jeb Bush, had forced the Republicans to spend more money and time than they had planned to defend the President's brother. On a bad-news morning, McAuliffe cited this as an accomplishment.
What a straw to grasp! Fellow Democrats, feel good today, we caused a bout of indigestion at the House of Bush. No doubt, the election results--with the Senate swinging Republican--was one giant roll of Tums for the Bushies. McAuliffe then went on to proudly describe how the party in 2002, under his guidance, spent three times as much as it ever has on midterm elections. Again, spoken like a fundraiser. McAuliffe hailed the grassroots structure he developed, and the record amount of small-donor money the party bagged.
McAuliffe also talked up Democratic pickups in gubernatorial contests. But what he didn't mention was message. In fact, he argued that message was not the issue. The Republicans' edge, he insisted was "tactical, not ideological." What had turned the election, in his estimation, was George W. Bush's relentless campaigning on behalf of GOP candidates. Worse, those sly Republicans had used hundreds of millions of dollars in special interest money to blur the differences between Republicans and Democrats on prescription drugs and Social Security. McAuliffe maintained the election results "do not reflect an ideological shift" and that the nation is in the "same place" as it was after the 2000 election: "50-50 parity."
McAuliffe has spinned himself into delusion. It's true that that the Republicans achieved their macro win in the Senate by squeaking by in a few close contests (while adding to their majority in the House). But what happened to McAuliffe's old line that the Ninny-in-Chief and his fellow Republicans were going to be routed by a combination of Democrats outraged over Florida (including still pissed-off African-Americans) and voters upset over their most recent 401(k) statements? The United States may remain a 50-50 nation--though it feels more like 52-48 at the moment--but within that split culture, Bush has proven he is a political power, and the Democrats have demonstrated they have no juice. This is not the "same place" as post-2000. Bush has been affirmed--as has his agenda.
Message matters. Bush had one: support me, the war, and tax cuts. That was pretty straightforward. The Democrats offered, we're not Bush and vote for us if you're anxious about the economy even though we don't have a comprehensive plan for dealing with it. Not much of a bumper sticker there. Besides, we're-not-Bush is not a great plan when the President is scoring approval ratings in the mid-60s. "Ultimately," Senator Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (who joined McAuliffe at the press conference), observed, "we could not compete with the bully pulpit and a wartime president." Now she tells us.
One reason the Dems couldn't compete was that they had no overarching theme that cut through the clutter of the campaign. Democrats did little to differentiate themselves from Bush and the GOP on war and tax cuts, and they made it easy for the Republicans to muddy the distinctions in issue areas where Democrats traditionally possess an advantage. Take health care. If the Democrats are only proposing a prescription drug benefit for seniors--and not a more comprehensive initiative, such as universal health coverage--then the GOPers can easily cook up their own proposal and play the Democrats to a tie.
The Democrats failed to exploit the wave of corporate crime and the growing gap between the corporate class and the rest of America. Bush ended up going along with the modest legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate. Couldn't the Democrats come up with measures too tough for Bush to accept? Moreover, the Democratic Party, which eagerly pockets corporate contributions, has failed in recent years to establish itself as an institution that steadily stands up to corporate excesses and champions the interests of workers, investors, and consumers. The public recognizes that Democrats are generally less in bed with corporate special interests than Republicans. But it does not--nor should it--see Democrats as righteous opponents of corporate favoritism and political corruption. As soon as the Enron scandal broke, Republicans were quick with the newsclips showing that Democrats had taken money from Enron execs and that high-profile Democrats (paging Joseph Lieberman) had previously done the bidding of the accounting industry and blocked real reform. Remember James Carville and other Democratic strategists crowing at the start of 2002 that Enron would do in the Republicans? That corporate malfeasance would overshadow the war on terrorism as an issue in the 2002 elections? That was a pipe dream. But especially so with the Democrats' mixed record.
Mixed record--that's true of the Democrats on many important matters, such as the war against Iraq and Bush's millionaire-friendly tax cuts. While McAuliffe was shaking the money trees, he neglected to craft an unmixed message for his candidates. Neither did the two other party leaders: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. In the words of Al Gore, it is time for them to go. (Probably Gore, too. We'll get to him in a moment.)
For four elections in a row, Gephardt has failed to win back the House. This time out, he demonstrated he had no clue as to what might be an effective strategy. His strategy of embrace-the-President flopped. And it was not easy to tell whether his actions were motivated by his presidential ambitions or his leadership responsibilities. (To be fair, he probably found it tough to sort that out himself.) And what did Daschle do as majority leader to improve the Democrats' chances on November 5? He failed to use the Democrats' control of the Senate to develop a compelling and discernible agenda.
Certainly, it may be too difficult for any Democratic leader to ride herd over a party that is so ideologically disparate that it can be home to both Paul Wellstone and Zell Miller. This is a party that is gridlocked, at war with itself over Iraq and Bush's tax cuts. But that's the challenge of leadership, and neither McAuliffe, Daschle nor Gephardt has figured out how to do it.
It's time for regime change. (New reports based on confidential sources are already saying Gephardt is poised to quit as Democratic House leader to explore a White House bid. I don't see how he turns a four-in-a-row losing streak into a successful presidential campaign.)
While we're on the subject of change at the top, Gore does not look swell the day after. Where was the Election 2000 anger that was supposed to be an asset for Democrats? Jeb Bush stomped the Democrats in Florida. And African-American voters--who supposedly were the most enraged about the recount mess--do not seem to have flooded the polls on behalf of Democrats in Florida, Georgia, Maryland or Massachusetts. In Georgia, Republican congressman Saxby Chambliss upset Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a decorated war hero. In Maryland--a state with a five-to-one Democratic edge in voter registration--Republican Bob Ehrlich trounced Democratic Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In Massachusetts, Republican Mitt Romney defeated Democratic Treasurer Shannon O'Brien. As even Democratic loyalist (and apologist) Donna Brazille complained before the election, Democrats were practicing "drive-by" politics, zooming past urban voters (meaning African-Americans) and trying to appeal to suburban swing voters. That's another way of saying the Democrats had no message to inspire a crucial bloc.
To bring it back to Gore, if Democratic outrage is no longer a force, his prospects diminish. While Gore did take strong exception to Bush's dash to war, he, too, tried to bash Bush on the economy without developing any alternative. During the campaign, he delivered a speech in Washington that lambasted Bushonomics, but refused to say what he would do about Bush's tax cuts. His big idea: call on Bush to change his economic team.
If the current Democratic leaders took a powder, could Senator Harry Reid, the Democrats' number-two in the Senate, or Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority whip, do any better? There is no easy way out for the Democrats. But the flip answer is, can they do worse? Neither Daschle nor Gephardt were able to capture the imagination of the public, at a time when, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, Democratic Party identification is declining faster than Republican Party identification. And at the DNC, why stick with Terry McBucks, a slick Clinton holdover obsessed with money over message?
The Democrats would be unwise to leave the party in the hands of a man who believes that what derailed Democrats on November 5 was mainly the "tactical" problem posed by Bush. After all, who does he think the Democrats will be running against next time?
Washington loved Paul Wellstone more in death than in life.
In the days following his demise in an airplane crash--which also claimed the lives of his wife, his daughter, three campaign associates, and two pilots--the senior senator from Minnesota was widely praised by all. Robert Novak hailed him as a "happy warrior" quick to engage in playful banter. ("Oh no. Call off the press conference, Novak's here.") Fred Barnes complimented Wellstone for not being a "hater" and for being "a wonderful guy...an unswerving liberal, always true to his conscience." David Gergen called him, "A brave man who always remembered the little guy and fought for him in the Senate." Vin Weber, a Republican congressman-turned-lobbyist, observed, "He was in it for the things he believed in, whether people agreed with him or not." Morton Kondracke praised him as a "small-d democrat...[who] loved to talk...on the floor of the Senate and also just talk with ordinary people." Chris Matthews described him as "an academic man who had the guts to run for office," and noted "people respected his integrity, his fidelity to his beliefs....It's good to have some people in the Senate who read some books." Tony Snow remarked, "Paul Wellstone was a good, truly good, human being, whose personality and example will outlive his causes."
On Wellstone's side of the aisle, Ted Kennedy said, "all of us admired his fight." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called Wellstone "the soul of the Senate...a gallant and passionate fighter, especially for the less fortunate.""
It is true that Wellstone was well-liked. He was a high-energy, jovial man who relished a fierce debate. And he was as un-self-important as senators come. Many have noted he would even chat with the elevator operators and cafeteria workers in the Capitol--a remark that says more about Wellstone's colleagues than Wellstone himself. (Wellstone's mother was a cafeteria worker, which embarrassed Wellstone when he was a child. As an adult, he made it a point to meet and talk to cafeteria workers when he visited schools and other places.) Wellstone was boisterous and good-humored, never bitter. The compliments are not insincere.
As a friend of Wellstone, I appreciated all the kind words about him and his wife Sheila, who was a full partner in and out of the Senate office. But there was something disquieting about the flood of tributes. Why, we might ask David Gergen, is it so noteworthy that a senator looked out for the interests of "the little guy"? Isn't that what every member of Congress should do? NBC News correspondent Lisa Myers made the same man-of-the-people point in a report on Wellstone's death: "Today the little guys lost a giant voice in the Senate." If speaking up for the "little guys" is an honorable deed, why was Wellstone not widely celebrated for doing so when he was alive? Earlier in his career, Wellstone notes in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Myers did a segment on him and was asked by an anchor, "Does anyone in the Senate take him seriously?" She answered, "Not really."
Certainly, Wellstone impressed more members of that exclusive club as the years went by. He entered the Senate, after his surprising win in 1990, saying he "despised" Jesse Helms. Yet he went on to forge a cordial relationship with the right-wing zealot and even co-sponsored legislation with him. And his alliance with Republican Senator Pete Domenici on legislation that requires health insurers to cover mental illnesses demonstrated Wellstone could form coalitions and do the heavy lifting. (Wellstone's older brother Stephen suffered a severe mental breakdown while a college student. Wellstone, then 11 years old, visited him every other weekend at the Virginia State Mental Institution. He later wrote, "The institution was a scary, depressing place: decrepit buildings, patients in institutional uniforms sitting on benches or wandering aimlessly. I didn't see how anyone could get better in that place. I was more angry than frightened. I could not believe that vulnerable people who were sick, especially my own brother, could be treated so badly. These visits were a radicalizing experience. I didn't know what to do about it, but I knew this was an injustice." His brother eventually improved, was able to finish college, and became a teacher, all the time struggling with mental disease.)
Was he the "soul of the Senate"? Senator Tom Harkin, the only politician chosen to speak at the memorial for Wellstone and the others in Minnesota, echoed Daschle's phrase in saluting his best friend in Congress. No doubt, Wellstone, as self-effacing as he was, would have taken pleasure in that description. Yet he would have asked, why does the Senate need a soul? Why is it that not every Democratic senator is renowned as a gallant fighter for the less fortunate? Wellstone, now gone forever, is acclaimed for having voted his conscience--having chosen conviction over political calculation, as if that was a remarkable act. In Washington, such behavior ought not to stand out.
But it does. Wellstone was liked, but hardly emulated. He was not the toast of the town, not the big "get" for the talk-show bookers. He was not lauded as the "soul of the Senate"--except by his ardent supporters. People snickered in 1999 when he considered running for President. If he took an unpopular position--forcing a recorded vote on a savings-and-loan bail-out, or pushing Senators to relinquish receiving gifts from lobbyists--the common line was not, "There goes Mr. Integrity, looking out for the little guys." It was more, "Wellstone's being a pain in the ass again." But grudges were not held because he was personable, and kept his politics from becoming personal.
The real example he set was not that he was friendly to all--politicians, pundits, and commoners. There are plenty of amiable men and women in Washington. (Jesse Helms, after all, is reputed to be a wonderful boss.) Wellstone might have been the most good-natured member of the Senate, but he set a more important standard in how he achieved power and what he did with that power. It's easy to talk to cafeteria workers; he crafted legislation and voted with them in mind.
Wellstone came to the Senate as a community organizer. A professor at Carleton College, Wellstone had taught students how to organize and gain political power outside the classroom. When he ran for the Senate in 1990, as an impoverished candidate, he stuck to the same model: taking clear and strong progressive stands and motivating like-minded volunteers to devote their time and energy to the grunt work of campaigns. He invited them to join not just a political party but a cause.
His path to the Senate was unlike that of most of his colleagues, many of whom rely on either personal fortune or big-money donations from millionaires or special interests to buy a campaign structure and television ads. He demonstrated that modern democracy can be a meritocracy in which an ideas-driven candidate can claim high office by convincing enough of his neighbors to help.
Shortly after his reelection in 1996, I saw Wellstone and congratulated him. It had been a tough race. Rudy Boschwitz, the incumbent whom he defeated in 1990, had tried to regain the seat by spending millions of dollars on attack ads that depicted Wellstone as a welfare-loving, out-of-touch 1960s throwback. Yet Wellstone won with a comfortable nine-point margin. (That was more than the 5-point win he had secretly predicted when I saw him before the election. During that visit, at my request, he had taken a blank page from my notebook, written down his guess of the final results, and sealed it an envelope.) So, I said to him, you figured out a strategy to counter all those nasty Boschwitz ads. Wellstone explained it was not a matter of strategy, it was a matter of work. Becoming excited, his right hand chopping the air, he exclaimed: This is how we did it--5000 volunteers, 400 phone lines, 200,000 windshield flyers, 50,000 door-hangers. He hadn't won because of any clever strategic positioning. He bagged 1.1 million votes the old-fashioned way--with an organization. "What we did was a model for others, he said. "I want to make sure people realize that."
But most in Washington don't play politics that way. (One exception is Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who was encouraged to run for the Senate, in part, by Wellstone's 1990 victory.) I have wondered if Wellstone's colleagues were jealous of the guy who made it to the Senate on his own terms in a way that comes straight out of the anybody-can-grow-up-to-become-a-senator civics textbook.
The manner in which he was elected rendered it easier for him to vote his conscience. He owed only his constituents--a group that extended beyond Minnesota's borders and included Americans who shared and fought for the progressive values Wellstone championed. (His non-Minnesota fans became an essential part of his political base; much of the money he raised in 1996 and this year came from national direct-mail solicitations.)
He rarely let them down. He did vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, legislation that was designed to block gay marriages. Gay and lesbian activist were outraged, and so were other Wellstone fans. "What troubles me," he later wrote, "is that I may not have cast the right vote on DOMA. I might have rationalized my vote by making myself believe that my honest position was opposition. This vote was an obvious trap for a senator like me, who was up for reelection. Did I convince myself that I could gleefully deny Republicans this opportunity?…When Sheila and I attended a Minnesota memorial service for Mathew Shepard, I thought to myself, ‘Have I taken a position that contributed to climate of hatred?'"
All elected officials in Washington take dives. Most take many. This was one of the few for Wellstone. He was the only Democratic senator facing reelection in 1996 who voted against the so-called welfare reform legislation. GOPers rubbed their hands together, eager to run against "Senator Welfare." But he survived that challenge. And weeks before he died, he was the only Democratic senator in a close race who voted against the measure authorizing President Bush to launch war on Iraq whenever he sees fit. Republicans considered that vote a gift--potent ammunition they could use in Wellstone's neck-and-neck race with Norman Coleman. Following that high-profile vote, though, polls indicated Wellstone had opened a slight lead over Coleman. Was it due to the fact that Wellstone had followed his conscience? No one will ever know. But there was no immediately recognizable harm.
Shortly after the Iraq vote, I ran into an adviser to a Democratic senator who had voted in favor of the resolution. That senator, too, was also up for reelection. "Don't tell me," I said to the adviser, "that Senator ______ really believes voting for this was the right thing to do." The adviser shook his head, "Of course not." So why vote for it? "Listen, this thing is going to happen, they had the votes. So should he have sacrificed himself? Would you rather have a war with _______ in the Senate or a war without _______ in the Senate. That's the real choice."
What about leadership? I asked. "Remember the two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964," the adviser responded. "They both lost their next election." But Wellstone voted against the Iraq measure, I shot back. "That's Wellstone," the adviser replied. "He's different."
Different, indeed. He never fretted about being on the wrong side of a 99-1 vote. Not that he liked it. But he realized this would occasionally happen. I always thought it would be tough to be that alone, that exposed (politically). But Wellstone, as far as I saw, was ever optimistic, always upbeat--almost to an annoying degree. As a quasi-pessimist, I often tried to coax him into conceding that a situation looked grim, perhaps hopeless. He never obliged. After the 1994 elections handed the Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time in decades, Wellstone was upset but not down. "We don't have time for despair," he said. "The fight doesn't change. It just gets harder. But it's the same fight." The ebb and flow of political power in Washington concerned him, but never weighed upon him. Wellstone viewed himself a participant in a long-term struggle for social and economic justice and for a safe and sound world, an endeavor which was under way before he hit the scene and which would continue after he departed. And he always seemed truly grateful for having the chance to play his part. When politics is a calling, rather than a career, the inspiration never ends. And there are few in Washington who inspired others as much as did Wellstone, a short, balding man, with a loopy smile and an awkward gait.
Politics, he once said, "is what we dare to imagine." Before he came to Washington, many Americans could only imagine a senator like Paul Wellstone. But he proved that the dream of having passionate, caring, for-the-people representation in Washington--of having an utterly unabashed populist liberal who lived his principles in the hallways of power--could happen. He demonstrated that he could find his place in Washington, even if he was not embraced by the town; that he could find common ground with ideological foes in pursuit of the public interest; that he could joust with the pundits; and that he could serve nobly and effectively without ceding too much to the capital's culture of calculation and compromise. Wellstone showed progressives how much is possible. His presence here, these past twelve years, expanded their imagination.
[To read a sample of Wellstone's own words, click on the link below.]
In the darkness of death, it is hard to line up thoughts, to arrange memories, to process feelings and ideas. Instead, we can, in this instance, let the dead speak.
Paul Wellstone spoke a lot when he was alive. He could speak torrents. On the Senate floor and off. And occasionally he wrote it down. Last year, he produced a book, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda. It was an explanation of his beliefs, peppered with reminiscences of his life before and during his career as a U.S. senator. In an inscribed copy he gave me, he wrote, "It is my best 5:00 AM to 6:00 AM writing effort!" (Paul, I once told him, you do use a lot of exclamation points.) Rather than produce an insta-reflection--not even half a day has passed since Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia, three campaign aides, and two pilots died in an airplane crash in northern Minnesota--I'd prefer to share his own words. There will soon be time--too much time--to reflect upon his life, his legacy, and, most of all, his example.
Below are some of the portions of The Conscience of a Liberal that prompted highlighting when I read the book. Imagine Paul's voice, often cracking and crackling with emotion, as you read these, and you can still experience his passion, his conviction, and his goodheartedness.
I came to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in September 1969...determined not to be an outside observer but to use my skills as a political scientist to empower people and to step forward with people in justice struggles. If this sounds a bit too romantic, remember that I was only twenty-five. And yet today I still feel the same way! ...
First, I supervised studies of housing, health care, and nutrition needs. We identified needs but made no policy recommendations. It was controversial work. The college was not used to this kind of community research. And when it became clear that the data would be used by poor people for poor people, neither the county nor college officials were pleased. I remember one of my many confrontations over this research. The then-president of Carleton said: "One would think that in good political science public-policy research, there would be a clear set of policy recommendations for the relevant decision-makers." The untenured assistant professor--me--replied: "This isn't for the politicians and the elite, it is for poor people that are affected by the problems. It is to help empower them to take action."
The First National Bank, Paynesville, had called in the demand note on the Kohnen dairy farm. Land values had plummeted, and therefore the farm's debt-to-asset ratio had changed dramatically. The bank said the farm was no longer solvent, and it intended to foreclose. At the first sign of trouble, this huge branch bank wanted out of its farm loans. Farmers then organized an "action" on the bank: They marched into the bank with the Kohnen family and demanded negotiations.
A former student of mine, Joel Chrastil, asked me to come to Paynesville to support this effort. When I left home, Sheila said to me, "Don't get arrested!"
I said, "Of course not, don't worry about it. I am working for the governor. I certainly can't get arrested." Famous last words!
Sheila knew me too well. The problem is, I made the mistake of jumping on a table and giving a speech about how we would "stay until there is justice for the Kohnen family." I thought the bank would surely work out a compromise.
But not so. At closing time, one of the farmers, Mike Laidlaw, announced, "Some of us are staying!" They turned to ask what I was going to do. I had no choice. I'd given the speech! I couldn't walk out on the farmers or him. I made the lead story on the 6:00 and 10:00 P.M. news, being handcuffed and led away by the police. Not a good move for a special assistant to the governor and not a great strategy for getting elected to the U.S. Senate.
A trip to Houston in June 2000 provided powerful testimony about our health care crisis. I held a hearing with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee on mental health and children. The room was packed with parents desperate to tell their stories.
The most jarring words, however, came from the director of the Harris County juvenile corrections system. (Harris County is the fifth-largest county in the country.) After making clear his no-nonsense, law-and-order philosophy, he said, "A lot of people think that if these kids are locked up they did something bad to deserve it and should be locked up. The truth is that forty percent of them struggle with mental health problems, and the reason they are incarcerated is that the parents couldn't get any help for their illness. The only way the parents could get any treatment for the kids was to see them locked up." This is today, in America!
My trips to Washington, D.C., [in 1990] as the Democratic candidate from Minnesota were a disaster. I met with Senator John Breaux, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and explained to him how we would win: an all-out grassroots campaign in an old green bus, lots of volunteers, cafe politics, populist economics, and campaigning against big-money politics. John (whom I like and whose company I enjoy) wanted to know how much money I had raised. That was the end of the conversation.
Too many Democrats learned the wrong lessons from the 1993-1994 health care battle. They think the only way to go is in small steps acceptable to vested health care interests. The truth is we need bold proposals that will really help poor people and that an aroused public will fight for.
I once traveled to East Los Angeles and visited a wonderful Head Start program. After spending time with the children, I sat down to talk with the parents. One mother told me that she had been on welfare but was now working. She emphasized how much she wanted to work. All of a sudden, she broke down and started crying because while she wanted to work, she was frightened every day for her little girl, who was a second grader. She was scared because she was no longer there to take her daughter to and from school. She had instructed her little girl that, once home (in the housing project) each afternoon, she was to take no phone calls and not go outside. How many children cannot go outside to play?
We do not know what will happen when state by state all women and children are cut off from welfare assistance. Will there be jobs for children who had children or have not graduated from high school, mothers who struggle with substance abuse, mothers with severely disabled children, or women who have been battered over and over again? If they can't work, these families will receive no assistance.
There is already some disturbing evidence....But so far I have not even been able to pass legislation requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to collect relevant data from states and report it to Congress. We, as policy makers, must insist on this. The first time I proposed this, I lost by one vote, 50-49. The second time, the Senate accepted this amendment (the Democrats said to the Republicans, "Do you want him on the floor for several hours on this?"), but then it was dropped in conference committee. The third time, I attached the welfare amendment to an education tax-credit bill. It passed 78-21. But the bill may go nowhere.... I need to look for another piece of legislation to which to attach this amendment.
I knew all along that it would be a tough race [in 1996]. I was the only senator up for reelection who voted against the "welfare reform" bill, and this vote alone was supposed to have cost me the election. I was at odds with most of the powerful economic interests in the country, including in Minnesota. My friend Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, told me, "Paul, you are the most difficult senator to raise money for!"
Disproportionate among the ranks of nonvoters are "minorities" and blue-collar and low-income citizens. It is the Democrats' natural constituency, if we are willing to speak to the concerns and circumstances of their lives and include them. If you don't say anything important to them and hardly ever show up in the community, people don't vote. Why should they?
Somehow, too many Democrats have failed to make a key distinction. It is true, as the conventional wisdom goes, that if you speak only about the poor, you lose. This is fairly obvious. But to say you should not focus only on the poor doesn't mean you should never deal with issues of poverty. The same holds for issues of race and gender. The Democratic Party, which is supposed to be the party of the people, has far too often been silent about these issues. To do the right thing and to win, they must be put back on the table.
In 1993-1994, I observed one senator closely as he cast several votes he obviously didn't believe in. One time, he came up to me, noticing the disapproval on my face, and said, "Paul, understand, I have to get through this election." This senator had served many distinguished years. I especially admired his ability to manage a bill on the floor. He was thoughtful, articulate, and a great debater. He was a great senator. And yet he was a shell of himself and miserably unhappy that election year. And he lost.
One early morning in August 1994, during the height of the Senate health care debate, I spoke to a gathering of 350 orthopedic surgeons. It was not a fund-raiser but a favor to a childhood friend who was in the field.
I arrived five minutes early, and as I entered the room I heard the group's PAC director tell the doctors, "When you go to see your representative or your senator, you cannot give them a PAC check in their office. That is not legal. So they might want to just tell you where to send it instead." And then he hesitated and said, in an awkward way, "But they will take it." There was an uneasy laughter in the room, because these doctors clearly didn't feel good about their role in the process.
Then I was introduced....I told them that while I would speak about health care policy, I wanted to respond first to what I had heard. I told them that I didn't think representatives or senators should take any health care PAC money before voting on health care legislation. I was certain these remarks would be met with a wall of hostility. Instead, to my surprise, the surgeons literally came to their feet and gave me a long standing ovation. Their reaction made me hopeful: People feel ripped off, and they are angry--even prosperous orthopedic surgeons!
I had just given a speech on the floor and felt pretty good--I had spoken with passion and eloquence, I thought. Senator Hollings came up to me and said, "Young man, you remind me of Hubert Humphrey." I was really proud and ready to burst when he went on to say, "You talk too much."
When Sheila and I attended a Minnesota memorial service for Matthew Shepard, I though to myself, "Have I taken a position that contributed to a climate of hatred?" Of course, I had never believed this when I voted for [Defense of Marriage Act, an effort to prohibit same-sex marriage.] But if you deny people who are in a stable, loving relationship the right to marry, do you deny them their humanity? I still wonder if I did the right thing.
Quite often, it's important as a senator to take on vested power. I think this is where the Democratic Party is weakest. On large questions dealing with power in America, on "class issues," most Democrats are nowhere to be found. When it comes to funding for Head Start, affordable child care, more investments in job training, housing, health, and education, the differences between Democrats and Republicans make a difference. But not when it comes to challenging economic power in America. The same powerful investors control both parties. I hate saying this--it is the most discouraging thing about being a senator--but it is a reality.
Policy is not about techniques of communication. Over and over again I hear my Democratic colleagues talk about how to better deliver our "message." But the question is not how to communicate our agenda, but whether we have an agenda worth communicating. ...One student at a the University of Michigan said to me, "Senator, I want to be able to dream again--about a better country and a better world. And politics today doesn't give me a chance to dream."
There is, of course, no guarantee of success. But politics is not about observations or predictions. Politics is what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine.